The world's robot workforce is on the move.

No longer limited to their stationary posts on assembly lines and in warehouses, autonomous robots are increasingly fleet-footed—making their way up and down the supply chain. Along the way, they're earning job titles from garçon to pack mule.

Sales of mobile robots have long lagged behind those of industrial robots, but that is poised to change for the first time this year, according to intelligence firm ABI Research. The overall robotics industry grew 28% year-over-year in 2021 to set a record of nearly 40,000 units sold, according to the Association for Advancing Automation.

Venture capital funding has moved in lockstep, with robotics companies raising $8.2 billion across 360 deals in 2021, more than double the prior year's total value, according to PitchBook data. For investors, more independent robots have opened up a range of new vertical applications, whether it be inspecting oil rigs or serving food.
"Every industry, blue-collar and white-collar, the robots are creeping in," said David Mandel, managing partner at Emerging Ventures, whose robotic portfolio includes vision company Apera and crop-scanning startup Bloomfield Robotics.

Their newfound mobility and well-rounded skill sets are owed to a confluence of technological improvements. The latest vision systems have made it easier to navigate variable surroundings. Improved chips can run AI algorithms at the edge to make decisions without communicating with the cloud. Lightweight, energy-dense batteries allow robots to run for much of the day.

Armed with these capabilities, robots can better handle the randomness of the real world. 

"As technologies mature, they generalize better," said Jim Adler, founding managing director of Toyota Ventures. "You don't want them to fit like a glove. You want them to fit like a mitten."

Macroeconomic nudges are also at work. Rising ecommerce sales have forced retailers and shippers to be more efficient, leading to more investment in automation and experimentation with micro-fulfillment networks and ultrafast delivery. Disruption to supply chains has pushed executives to put an added emphasis on continuity—robots work eight days a week. And increasingly, robots are gaining traction in industries hit hard by labor tightness.

In an effort to gain ground on leaders like Amazon, retailers of all stripes are tapping robotics startups for help automating their warehouses. European startup Exotec raised $335 million at a $2 billion valuation in a January round led by Goldman Sachs. The company's robotics system, used by retailers like Gap and Uniqlo, is designed to fetch goods in ultra-dense warehouses that span 36 vertical feet.

Factory-to-door service

Warehouses have been a natural target for automation amid pressures caused by ecommerce growth. Other parts of the supply chain present less controlled environments, but the latest robotic offerings are up to the task.

Fabric raised $200 million in October, one of the sector's largest rounds, to build its automated system for micro-fulfillment centers. The idea is to take the systems that have transformed distribution centers and scale them down for use in urban warehouses.

Robotic forklift startups have also become a hot commodity among venture capitalists. In January, Vecna Robotics raised $65 million and Phantom Auto raised $42 million. Boston Dynamics, whose robotic dog Spot has long grabbed headlines, recently began selling a robot for unloading trucks following the company's $1.1 billion acquisition by Hyundai last year.

These efforts are helping to make automated last-mile delivery a reality alongside door-to-door autonomous vehicles like those made by Nuro.

Robots are also getting closer to end users by taking service jobs. 

White Castle is testing burger-flipping robots made by Miso Robotics, which is targeting a $40 million equity crowdfunding round. SoftBank-backed Keenon Robotics landed $200 million last year for its delivery robots in hotels and restaurants. And Bear Robotics' waiter, named Servi, has made its debut at restaurants including Denny's and Chili's.

From the warehouse to the farmyard

The forces that have pushed robots down the supply chain have also moved them closer to producers. Indoor farming startup Plenty recently raised $400 million alongside a shift of strategy: It is now selling indoor farms directly to customers like grocery and restaurant chains. The pitch is greater control over the produce supply chain alongside predictable costs and yields.

In Plenty's farms, tower gardens of salad greens and other produce are grown and harvested with the help of robotic arms that pluck and place the towers for harvesting by human hands. Field farming lacks this controlled environment.

"We have some really hard problems to solve in the field," said Plenty co-founder and chief science officer Nate Storey. "There's no way that Plenty can supply all the world's food demands."

To meet that challenge, fleets of autonomous tractors are rolling out into the field. Last year, Monarch Tractor raised $61 million and Bear Flag Robotics was acquired by John Deere for $250 million. Both systems allow a single worker to manage multiple electric tractors that can work day and night.

Even the humble wheelbarrow is getting an upgrade. Burro, which has created a robot that transports fruit picked by workers in the field,  raised a $10.9 million Series A in September co-led by S2G Ventures and Toyota Ventures.

While these robotic applications have long been envisioned, many are still unproven in practice. It remains to be seen how customers will react to robots in restaurants, or whether the success of the warehouse can be translated to last-mile delivery applications.

In the right conditions, advocates argue that these robots can do the double duty of saving money for businesses while improving the working conditions of their human colleagues.

As Adler noted, "These autonomous vehicles are just going to amplify people and the work that we do."

Featured image by Drew Sanders and Julia Midkiff/PitchBook News

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